As couples embark on the journey of starting a family, the focus on ensuring a healthy pregnancy typically falls on the woman. In the UK, guidelines from the chief medical officer advocate for abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy, citing the heightened risks of miscarriage and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD encompasses a range of challenges linked to a baby’s exposure to alcohol in the womb, affecting emotional, behavioural, developmental, and learning aspects.
The recommendations extend to preconception, suggesting that women planning to become pregnant should also avoid alcohol to minimize potential risks. However, evidence from large surveys reveals that not all women adhere to these guidelines, irrespective of whether the pregnancy is intentional or not.
Surprising findings from a 2017 US study involving 5,036 women showed that the prevalence of alcohol consumption before pregnancy was nearly identical for both intended (55%) and unintended pregnancies (56%). Similarly, a 2015 study in Sweden, encompassing 3,390 women, reported no significant difference in weekly alcohol consumption between those with “very planned” (11%) and “very unplanned” pregnancies (14%). Moreover, a 2013 survey of 258 Danish women unveiled that even in pregnancies labeled as “very” or “fairly well planned,” 20% admitted to binge drinking early in pregnancy.
While societal attention often fixates on a woman’s relationship with alcohol during pregnancy, emerging evidence highlights the crucial role of men’s alcohol use in determining the health of the baby. It appears that alcohol can influence sperm DNA, potentially impacting fertility and the ability to conceive.
The rationale behind recommending alcohol cessation before conception stems from research establishing clear links between the health of both men and women before pregnancy and the well-being of their offspring. Couples attempting to conceive are advised to quit alcohol at least six months before pregnancy to mitigate potential risks like congenital heart disease. Additionally, abstaining from alcohol before conception yields benefits for expectant parents, including improved sleep quality, increased energy levels, and enhanced concentration.
Intriguingly, research suggests that if a couple lives together and the male partner consumes alcohol, there is a higher likelihood that the woman will also drink alcohol before and during pregnancy. A study exploring this phenomenon revealed that drinking with a partner, whether before or during pregnancy, fosters a sense of social connection.
The preconception period is a vital window of opportunity for aspiring parents to enhance their health and increase the chances of successful conception. Alcohol consumption should be a focal point during this phase. A recent study delved into people’s and health professionals’ perspectives on information and support for reducing alcohol consumption before pregnancy. It discovered that while women are aware of the impact of lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking on pregnancy, there’s a conspicuous lack of awareness regarding the importance of men reducing their alcohol intake when planning for pregnancy.
Typically, men do not seek information about preconception health at clinics, as this responsibility usually falls on the woman. Although some indications suggest that men are open to altering their drinking behavior when planning for pregnancy, the literature review revealed a scarcity of studies exploring men’s or partners’ views on preconception health.
While interventions and approaches targeting preconception health in both men and women have shown promise, such as alcohol screening, counseling, and health education, there remains insufficient emphasis on men’s health during the preconception stage. This calls for a paradigm shift, as research consistently demonstrates that a baby’s health is shaped by the lifestyle choices of both parents.
For couples contemplating parenthood, now is an opportune moment for both partners to establish new goals and collectively reduce alcohol consumption. If concerns about alcohol consumption arise or if dependency is an issue, seeking professional advice and support for a safe reduction is paramount. In the intricate web of preconception health, both partners play pivotal roles, and addressing alcohol consumption collectively can significantly contribute to the well-being of the future child.